Last summer, perched outside a country pub on the picturesque borderlands between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, I met a less than puritanical Roundhead dressed in full New Model Army combat mode. As we downed a few ales from the local Hook Norton brewery and watched skylarks flying across the fields that marked one of the historic faultlines of the English Civil War, this latter-day Parliamentarian introduced me to 'Skirmish', the world's leading multi-period historical re-enactment magazine. The title seemed particularly apt. From the canonical to the conceptual, The Sealed Knot to the London Riot Re-enactment Society, contemporary devotees tend to gravitate towards bloody events involving bone-shattering degrees of violence.
Coupling a desire for authenticity with transparent simulation, in recent times the dialectical battlefield of re-enactment has proved fertile territory for artists eager to fuck with our fragile minds. Whether it's Jeremy Dellar restaging ferocious clashes between police and workers during the 1984 miner's strike or Rod Dickinson resurrecting the ambient ghosts of Jonestown and Waco, the work often retains a violent focus. Threading a marginally more playful route through this ontological labyrinth, artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have chosen to rejuvenate the fatigued concept of the cover version by remaking iconic gigs from rock 'n' roll's back pages. Whether meticulously recreating David Bowie's farewell show as Ziggy Stardust or painstakingly choreographing a reconstruction of the legendary performance by the Cramps at California's Napa State Mental Institute, the artists have shown an attention to microscopic detail that outstrips any debates on period buttons and bullets found in the equivalent back pages of 'Skirmish'.
Fresh from directing music videos with Nick Cave, for their latest sojourn through the shadowlands of re-enactment, Forsyth and Pollard collaborated with Outside Left's very own counter-cultural bounty-hunter, Kirk Lake. Adapting one of the earliest 3D films ever made - The Man from M.A.R.S. (aka Radio Mania) - the artists asked Lake to write a script for their video installation. The result is 'Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work'. Although in many ways a more freewheeling affair than previous re-enactments, the installation still galvanizes the grey cells into rethinking any simplistic separations between reality and illusion, art and life. On opening night, comforted by the plentiful supply of liquid at the free bar in the foyer, I joined the suitably laidback crowd pouring steadily into the BFI gallery. Collecting my chunky 3D glasses, I entered a darkened space populated by clusters of bespectacled voyeurs sitting and standing between two brightly-lit wall-size screens. As the looped single-take film progressed it became vividly apparent that we had stumbled into a Martian timeslip. Forsyth and Pollard had repositioned us as spectral interlopers caught between a group of musicians and actors in the middle of a cavernous sound stage during a rehearsal of Lake's deadpan script.
Here at Outside Left we've known for several years that our London editor is a veritable ideas machine: musician, artist, photographer, conceptual curator, cultural historian, novelist, screenwriter, biographer, film critic, boxing correspondent, opera buff, Bad Seed stand-in, all round light entertainer, the list is as long as the credits on a Spielberg movie. For 'Radio Mania' he seems to have channeled both Jean Cocteau's Orphée and John Wyndham's Chocky (the whereabouts of Wyndham's writing desk is another story) while alternating industrial strength hits of PK Dick and laughing gas. Forsyth and Pollard also like to fuse disciplines, mining a productive seam between art and science. Naturally, or rather, supernaturally, when an audience gets spliced into the projections of such genre-benders several mind-melting questions arise.
'Radio Mania' forces the viewer to confront their own physicality within the gallery. Inserted as a seemingly invisible presence between the screens, the audience interrupts the spatial continuum of the film. Is there something hauntological going on here? Are we ghosts from the future, passive revenants of a deferred spectacle repeatedly unravelling before our eyes? Or does this existential inversion of materiality ask us to recalibrate our spectacular passivity? Are we invited to question the familiar tropes of installation art regarding the relation between perception and participation? Should we invoke the notion of verfremdungseffekt? Or are we ready to concede that unless we wake up to the revolutionary potential latent within each moment then watching the endless interruptions of a rehearsal for a remake of a forgotten film is as close to reality as it gets? And what about those transmissions from Mars?
The original 'Radio Mania' had been made in 1922 to demonstrate 'Teleview', a short-lived stereoscopic film technique invented by Laurens Hammond, better known for creating the Hammond organ. Given Forsyth and Pollard's penchant for resonant correspondences, perhaps it was inevitable that the gallery screen featuring musicians idling behind their instruments (while awaiting their cues from the artists/directors) included veteran keyboardist Nick Plytas sat behind just such an organ. Meanwhile, on the facing wall, the actor Kevin Eldon (pictured above) tunes into the latest broadcast from Mars on his homemade radio. As the script unfolds, or rather continually collapses through a series of seemingly spontaneous hesitations and suggestions by the directors and various crew members, other recognizable faces from stage and screen - including the incomparable Fenella Fielding - enter and exit. Eventually, Plytas and the assembled band launch into an ambisonic soundtrack for an improbably comic Martian Dance sequence that soon disintegrates into yet more discussions between cast and crew.
In Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift gave a brief but astronomically accurate description of the two moons of Mars. Writing one hundred and fifty years before Asaph Hall at the US Naval Observatory established the existence of such moons, Swift also described the orbit of these satellites with seemingly uncanny precision. For those who want to believe that the truth is out there, Swift's cosmological insights kickstarted a conspiratorial trail of investigative speculation that the master satirist was either a Martian or had received extraterrestrial messages from Mars. With at least one of the inky tentacles of Lake's enterprising imagination still probing such alien interzones, I would urge any dedicated browser of the esoteric shelves of bookshops on this or any neighbouring planet to rush to the BFI gallery before the next Nutcon is announced. As for me, this summer I'm going to track down that bloody Roundhead and introduce him to the world according to Kirk.
'Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work' will continue to destabilize fragile minds at the BFI Southbank Gallery in London until 11 July 2009.